Collaborate: An Examination of Tools for Groups Working in the Cloud
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As the popularity of cloud computing increases, so do the number of common tasks that the cloud’s resources must support. Likewise, so has the number of tools designed to support such tasks. Since the birth of the personal computer, one of the most powerful capabilities of the technology has been to allow people to work collaboratively on tasks such as document creation and editing, project management and database maintenance.
Cloud computing has introduced a whole new dimension to such collaborations. Whereas such collaborations were previously restricted by and large to people on local area networks or in specific locations connected by complex and often-expensive technologies, the development of tools designed to assist collaboration over the Internet has opened the way for people just about anywhere to work together on common projects in real time. So what are these tools? In this article I will assess the essential tools that are helping people to collaborate on the most popular tasks.
With nearly a score of online applications, Zoho has set something of a benchmark for cloud-based services. Alongside the standard email and word processing tools, the extensive suite contains some less familiar yet useful tools, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) package, human resources tools and an invoicing application. The variety within the range is evidence of Zoho's commitment to providing its customers with "the most comprehensive set of applications available anywhere."
The more familiar tools in the suite - the word processor and spreadsheet, for example -- are based on the widely used and respected open source OpenOffice.org application suite, which almost guarantees them a certain quality standard. The applications are generally extremely functional, with a thorough and well-chosen feature set. From a collaborative point of view, the most important of these are the way existing documents are, in general, handled seamlessly, and the suite's powerful web publishing capabilities, which make data sharing straightforward. Zoho even offers some offline editing facilities which, although limited, help the suite to straddle the middle ground between cloud-only and localized applications.
However, Zoho does have a number of limitations worth noting. The most serious of these is the unfortunate tendency - of the Writer word processor and Sheet spreadsheet application at least - to hang when dealing with long or complex documents. Spreadsheets in particular seem vulnerable to this, especially those that contain extensive cell relationships and lengthy formulas.
There are also a number of quirky interface inconsistencies that can make using Zoho something of a frustrating experience. For example, common menu items are positioned differently in the various applications. This wouldn't be so bad if the interfaces didn't look so similar, leading to a false sense of confidence about where to find things.
The other key disadvantage of Zoho is that some of its document formatting options seem a little crippled. Writer, for example, is restricted to HTML formatting which, while ensuring that documents are widely shareable and are displayed consistently when collaborating, limits written document layout to the display features available for web pages. This means there are no footnotes or headers, and no proper page breaks. While Writer's documents are functional, they are not word-processed documents as we have come to know them. As things stand, they will not satisfy people writing academic papers or full-length books.
Summary: Zoho will let you collaborate on almost any kind of project, as long as cutting-edge formatting and rock solid stability aren't the priorities. Powerful, but think carefully before selecting for mission-critical tasks.
Pricing: Zoho is free for personal use. Multi-user licenses start from $12 per user per month.
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